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Italian academics protest reforms

Researchers argue recently-approved changes don't do enough to reform system

By | November 8, 2005

Last month, the Italian Parliament approved a debated reform proposed by the University and Research Minister Letizia Moratti that, among other measures, eliminates permanent contracts for all but professors, and establishes a national exam in order to qualify as a professor. The day the reform passed (October 25), more than 50,000 university members protested the move in Rome, worried that the new reform does not do nearly enough to remedy the academic system, and may, instead, make it even harder for scientists to get ahead.

Last week (November 1), universities made an appeal to the President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who has to sign all measures approved by the Parliament before they become law. Researchers and professors are currently also collecting signatures of people who oppose the reform, which they said they expect the president to sign any day. Proposed reforms also sparked a series of protests last year.

"The reform is extremely messy, does not ameliorate the current situation, and penalizes who is outside the system -- that is, the young generation," Giulio Peruzzi, a historian of physics and science at Padua University told The Scientist. Peruzzi is also a co-founder of the Osservatorio sulla Ricerca (Research Observatory), established in 2002 by Italian researchers with the intent of keeping a close eye on Government maneuvers that might threaten research.

Under the current system, Italian researchers who want to become professors have to pass an exam for each University, guaranteeing them a position at that school if they succeed. However, scientists have argued that this system is rife with corruption, because students who are connected to well-placed professors are frequently more likely to pass the exam, regardless of their results.

As a result, researchers say that senior scientists often abuse their position, knowing that researchers are often dependent on them to succeed. For instance, there are reports of professors asking researchers to absorb their teaching and other responsibilities, all unpaid. The current salary for researchers is 1,130 Euros per month.

The core of the new law is the reorganization of the career scheme, with the goal of speeding up the process of becoming a professor. For instance, PhD students interested in continuing research will be offered a four year-fellowship and then three-year contract with universities, which can then be renewed for another three years. After that, they will be entitled to compete for posts as professors in a national exam held every 2 years. Then, local universities will be able to take their pick from the exam winners – a move supporters of the reform argue will reduce researchers' dependence on professors to pass. If exam-takers pass and receive local appointments, they will receive a three-year contract. This contract would be renewable for another three years, after which universities would have to decide whether to offer the temporary professors a permanent post.

However, scientists said that the new exam doesn't do enough to eliminate the problem of needing to rely on senior scientists to succeed, and instead makes it even harder to become a professor by not guaranteeing a position. As a result, researchers said they are worried that, under the new system, permanent positions will never materialize, since once a researcher qualifies as a highly-paid professor, schools will more likely want to hire a cheaper researcher, according to Flaminia Saccà, a sociologist at Cassino University and member of the opposition party. And the new system does not appear to speed up the process to becoming a professor, Saccà noted.

"As it stands, the reform will, if anything, make the already precarious life of young researchers even more insecure and does not solve the chronic plague of patronage of this country because Moratti does not introduce any serious evaluation criteria," Saccà told The Scientist.

"In Italy, you will spend what is supposed to be the most productive period of your career depending on a sponsor senior professor, with a heavy burden of teaching on your shoulder – most of it not paid - and not being able to have decent funding to do what you really want to pursue," Alessandro Fatica, a researcher at La Sapienza University in Rome, added.

Scientists also have voiced concerns that the reforms do not address the lack of money for researchers. Furthermore, the government's 2006 budget contains further cuts to public spending, suggesting that the situation might even worsen, according to Padua's Peruzzi.

Researchers said that, despite their vocal protests against the reforms, they expect President Ciampi to vote the measure into law.

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